Monday, June 2, 2014

Stir-fried grilled breads

This is the type of food my husband grew up on in Taiwan. Living as an Air Force brat in a series of military enclaves, the foods he ate were designed with an eye to comfort and economy.

North China unarguably had the strongest influence on this fusion cuisine called juancuncai (literally, "military compound dishes"), as can be seen in the seemingly endless bowls of pasta that come out of these kitchens. 

Pork is the main meat, although chicken and fish find their way into others, and many more are virtually meatless apart from a subtle touch of the sea, as in Napa Cabbage with Dried Shrimp.

Breakfast, lunch...
My favorites were always the pasta dishes simply because they were so remarkably inventive and invariably delicious. I would often escape from the museum if stewed tilapia was on the staff lunch menu and head out for a little stand down the road where an elderly Mainlander and his Taiwanese wife would not even ask me what I wanted. 

Like a regular at the corner bar, they knew what I was there for, and before I knew it, a small bowl of hot noodles tossed with toasted sesame paste and seasoned with a touch of soy sauce and sugar would be placed in front of me along with a little saucer piled with blanched celtuce leaves. 

It was all I needed, and afterwards I would take a walk through the nearby botanical gardens to watch the turtles and dragonflies dart among the swaying lotus leaves while cicadas sang overhead. It was a magical way to spend my 90-minute lunchtime.

As I broadened my radius of reliable restaurants, those small haunts that offered juancuncai always stayed at the top of my list. And one of the best imaginable meals had to be this, stir-fried grilled breads. 

The pasta were in fact thin, freshly-made thick crepes called làobĭng 烙餅 that had been cut into strips before being stir-fried with vegetables and maybe a bit of pork or eggs. Nothing fancy, but it was Heaven on Earth, as far as I was concerned.

Nowadays, I much prefer this with fresh black mushrooms to pork, but it’s all a matter of taste. If you don’t have that many mouths to feed, cut the recipe in half, but I recommend you make all of the breads and freeze the extras.

Stir-fried grilled breads
Chǎobĭng 炒餅
Taiwan’s Military Families & North China
Serves 4 to 6 as a main dish
Roll out the breads

Grilled breads:
2 cups Chinese bread flour (or 1⅓ cups bread flour and ⅔ cup pastry flour), plus more as needed
1 teaspoon sea salt
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons boiling water

The rest:
6 grilled breads (from the above recipe)
4 ounces fatty pork or 10 large Chinese mushrooms (fresh or rehydrated)
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice wine (Taiwan Mijiu)
1 small bunch (12 ounces, or so) garlic chives
1 pound mung bean sprouts
½ cup (or more, as needed) peanut or vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons finely julienned ginger
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1. To make the grilled breads: Place the flour and salt in a medium work bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in just enough boiling water into the flour that it forms flakes when stirred into the flour and all of the water is absorbed into a soft dough. Empty the dough onto a smooth surface and knead it until smooth, adding more flour as necessary to keep it from sticking. When it is as soft as an earlobe, cover the dough and let it rest covered in plastic for about 20 minutes.

2. Divide the dough into 6 even pieces and roll each piece into a ball before flattening these balls with the palm of your hand. Roll each flattened ball out into an even. The best way to do this is to use a Chinese rolling pin in one hand and to turn the circle with the other; roll the circles out into flat discs that are around 7 inches wide. Keep the dough covered when you are not working with it. (The wrappers can be prepared ahead of time up to this point and frozen on plastic wrap; be sure and separate each wrapper with plastic to keep them from sticking, and then pack them in a freezer bag.)

3. Heat a seasoned yet unoiled cast iron frying pan over medium heat. When the bottom is hot, add one wrapper and slowly cook it on one side until the bottom is spotted brown and the top starts to puff up. Adjust the heat as needed to get the breads to puff up and brown easily. Turn the bread over and briefly cook it on the other side, then transfer it to plate under a clean tea towel so that it steams slightly. Repeat with the rest of the breads until all are cooked. Cut the breads into strips about ½-inch wide before covering them again with a towel.

Garlic chives
4. Slice the pork against the grain into thin pieces and then crosswise into matchsticks; if using the mushrooms, remove the stems and slice the caps into thin pieces. Place the pork or mushrooms in a small work bowl and toss with both the soy sauce and rice wine. While the pork/mushrooms are marinating, prep the vegetables: Trim off the bases of the chives, rinse the stalks, and then cut them crosswise into ½-inch lengths; shake these dry in a colander. Rinse the bean sprouts in another colander and shake dry.

5. Place a wok over high heat, and when it is hot, add half of the oil plus the ginger. Drain the pork/mushrooms and reserve the marinade, and then add the pork or mushrooms to the wok. Stir-fry the pork until it turns white or until the mushrooms are slightly browned, and then toss in the chives and bean sprouts. Continue tossing these over high heat in order to sear the vegetables. When the bean sprouts are still crisp but do not taste raw, scoop the vegetables and meat out into a clean work bowl.

Sliced omelet
6. Return the wok to the high heat and add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Swirl the oil around in the wok and then add all of the eggs. Tip the wok this way and that to form a large omelet. Turn it over to briefly cook the other side, and then remove to a cutting board. Slice the omelet into ½-inch strips.

7. Add the sliced breads to the hot wok and toss them without adding any extra oil, as this will crisp them up a bit. When they are hot, toss in the vegetable mixture and eggs, as well as the reserved marinade and sesame oil. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.

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